The Interview Series // 48

Adam Morris has the best beard we’ve ever seen. No shit. Look at it. It’s bushy awesomeness distracted us constantly throughout our early morning interview. And it’s distracting us again now from getting to Adam’s important bits. See, Adam is founder of Monsieur (http://monsieur NULL.com NULL.au/) – a newly formed digital shop in Melbourne. He preaches a smart, useful and beautiful approach to digital. And we reckon his opinion is worth hitting publish on – seeing as he’s worked on all things digital since nineties. And… He has a beard. But seriously, we got pretty deep into www’s in this one – so scroll away and then go make something useful and pretty and make us proud.

 

Junior: Ok Adam, let’s go back, way back…

Adam Morris: I started out typesetting magazines and designing for print. I worked with a small ad agency in Queensland through that role and ended up teaching their art directors HTML after hours. I’d taught myself HTML and was also studying Multimedia at university at the time. And then I became mates with those guys, and one of them moved to London, got a job in an agency there, and then got me one too in the web design department. This was in 1999/2000. It was a really interesting time as it was right at the height of the dot com bubble. Because of that, I got into roles that I wasn’t really qualified to do. Which was great. It’s the best way to learn. I had a couple of web design jobs in ad agencies and digital shops in London and Edinburgh before I came back home.

Jr: Sounds like a great time to be cutting your teeth…

A: Yeah, I did that for five years or so, and then I moved back to the Gold Coast. I worked as a traditional art director for six months, and then I opened up my own little design agency that did web stuff, for a year and a half. I had some decent clients. I had Billabong – which is about all you can have on the Gold Coast, right? So I did that, fluked some work from Monster.com via the ‘States, so I did sites for them. It was weird how that came about. It was about that time that CSS website design became really big. There was all those CSS design websites, putting up a new site/page every day. That whole web 2.0 aesthetic. A very weird time.

Jr: Did you find you more creative in your own business than in agency land?

A: No, not really. Probably less. Back then it was more about doing what you could with the technology. I always had a love for typography, grid systems and modernist design, so that always drove a lot of what I was doing so it was truly a design mind-set. But working in a big agency and collaborating with people with really diverse skill-sets really opened my eyes to ideas and real creative thinking. Working with copywriters, planners and UX folk really opened up a whole new world for me. That is what I consider to be a more meaningful form of ‘being creative’ anyway – solving problems through communications AND interaction design, rather than communicating in a more abstract sense through aesthetics, design and composition.

Jr: More recently you worked at DT Digital, and Cornwell Design in Creative Director and Director of Digital roles. Do you find yourself on the tools still – do you still code and do all that nerdy stuff?

A: I love it. I miss it. Towards the end of DT, as I had two roles there, CD of DTDigital and also Digital CD at Ogilvy, it was really full on so I never had any time to do stuff. I was across nearly every job in both agencies. It’s hard to adjust to. You go from spending every day of your life creating things, and then all of a sudden you find yourself in a place where you are coordinating stuff and going to a lot more meetings, managing staff and working more closely with clients.

Jr: Do you think having a technical background is really advantageous in working in digital adland?

A: Definitely. If there is someone in your agency who you can kind of draw upon then that’s always helpful. I think the work that I consider to be the most interesting work in the world is brought out of tapping into emerging behaviour that is based around technology – that kind of innovation hits the sweet spot almost. I’m trying to think of a good example. Everyone uses Nike+ as the example, but just an awareness of how people start to use technology to augment real life situations. Like how people are starting to pair technology with real-life behavior before other brands do. Nike jumped on really quickly when they noticed people were listening to their iPods while they were running, then going and making that experience more awesome. It’s all about timing, so now they own that behavior. Nike watched what their customer’s were doing, took a leap of faith and now pretty much ‘own’ music-plus-running. No other brand can touch it now. If you’re first to market it means everything.

Jr: Creatives coming out of AWARD school and the like come from the classic art director copywriter way of working. What kind of skills and thinking do people need coming through now that will give them a real edge?

A: I definitely think you need an awareness of digital and behavioral trends—it sort of seems like graduates don’t understand media very well. I don’t think anyone ever speaks to them about the challenges of different media. Why what you are doing needs to change or be different depending on how people are interacting or absorbing the message and what context they’re in. I don’t think that there is enough focus on the people at the other end of advertising. I think that’s the biggest thing that agencies are moving from dealing with now – shifting from thinking about perception to thinking more about behaviour. I think media has totally dictated that. Now creativity is always dictated by the medium that it’s made for. TV and radio in particular are always about bringing something down to its essence, reducing complex stuff to a very simple message that needs to be communicated in a 15 or 30 second spot. Finite media. Digital is different because it’s infinite media. And it requires complexity and depth. Layers of stuff. It’s not about reducing something down to a really simple message; it’s about doing something of value that people can explore.

Jr: Sometimes it’s hard pitching that kind of thinking to people without that level of understanding… They want to know “what’s the ad in it?”

A: It’s blatantly obvious that that doesn’t work in life. Take a banner ad for instance, where we think we’ve done really well if it has a .5% click-through rate. That’s crazy and insane. That’s where the bar is set and it’s incredible. Agencies continue to spend most of their digital budget on banner advertising, which is totally ineffective. It blows my mind. I just think banner ads are inherently stupid. It’s taking that interruptive concise, here’s our message, and putting it into a medium where it’s totally irrelevant. 99.5% of the time what you are putting there is a pain in the ass to people. It’s stopping them doing something that they are trying to do – trying to read a news article, etc.

Jr: Like page takeovers. Those things must make media companies so much fucking money.

A: That’s why it keeps on going, because there’s so much money in it. Brands don’t really have the confidence to put money elsewhere because it’s risky. At least you know what you’re going to get with a banner ad. But it’s genuinely really easy to double or triple the effectiveness of what you are doing if you try doing something a little bit different. We need to take marketers out of their comfort zone more. It’s not too hard to do the maths and model a per-interaction cost… Try this, spend this much money, just have a crack at it. It’s generally 10 times more effective, sometimes 20 or 40 is you sit down and compare it to display ads.

Jr: We read post about thinking small (http://garethkay NULL.typepad NULL.com/brand_new/2011/05/think-small NULL.html). Very interesting, and very true for these times, don’t you think?

A: I think it’s very right. You look at the stuff that Burger King do, online, which is up there with the best stuff that is happening. They must do a couple of hundred campaigns a year. Whopper sacrifice, that kind of stuff. It’s relatively small, but effective. They probably do a lot of stuff that fails and you never hear about it, but that’s kinda the point. “Tiny bets” as Gareth Kay puts it.

Jr: Do you reckon we will see the death of banner ads any time soon?

A: Probably, but not for a couple of years. Just because it’s still low risk and marketing directors are probably more comfortable with that as their success metric. Which is sad, but then again that’s a massive opportunity for us all to do better stuff.

Jr: What would you say to the junior working in an ad agency, that 80% of their job is doing shitty banners, but they want to do better stuff? What do you think the opportunities are for someone in that position?

A: If you have to do them, you’ve got to do them as well as you can. If I was a junior having to do that kind of stuff I’d be coming up with other things and trying to slip it under the CD’s nose, and saying, well, what if we did this, and what if we did that, and being more aware of what is happening. Being more aware of how people are using the internet. Again, Whopper sacrifice is the perfect example of that. Being aware that there is this cultural phenomenon happening on Facebook. Simple. Being aware of that kind of stuff, and being aware of it early, and first. Identifying it first. A lot of that stuff is planner territory. So talk to planners as much as you can. Ask them what problems they’re trying to solve for the agency’s clients, get as much insight as you can out of them.

Jr: It seems like everyone is a digital strategist these days, which I suppose a good digital creative has to be in a way.

A: Being aware of that stuff is really important. And it’s also pretty interesting I reckon. Maybe I’m a bit weird but I find all that stuff, how people’s behaviour is changing as a result of digital becoming the dominant media, is pretty exciting. So much change happening all the time.

Jr: A copywriter was telling us the other day how when he started in advertising ten years ago, he and his art director had to share a computer, and they didn’t have office email. If that was ten years ago, imagine what it could be like in another ten years. If they didn’t have email back then and they were sharing a big chunky iMac, what will it be in ten years? We might not even go into an office…

A: I reckon it will probably end up being more like a Hollywood movie industry where you have floating creative directors who just recruit teams of freelance talent for particular jobs. Horses for courses.

Jr: A highly mobile crew. Indeed. A bit like yourself and your new business really. What sort of stuff are you going to do?

A: Mostly digital based service stuff, like branded utilities. That’s what I want to be doing. I refuse to do banner ads. Just out of principle. I’m really interested in the role of digital in enhancing or augmenting existing behaviour — so just incrementally improving things or making something more fun.

Jr: That’s it isn’t it. That’s the key. Make people’s lives easier, or more fun. Lastly, what do you think most people get wrong in doing digital?

A: Using clicks or impressions as a success metric. It’s part of the banner ad problem we were talking about. All the focus is on pushing people somewhere or getting them to click on something, with little or no thought about what happens at the other end. And if they are thinking about what goes on at the other end they’re making assumptions about behavior that are unfounded. That people will like something or use something that they just straight-up won’t. Like microsites for frozen peas or Facebook pages for insurance. You know, just adding to the massive pile of digital ghost towns.

Written by Junior
Originally posted on: 10/08/2011